Imogen lived the way students were supposed to live, in a big Victorian house on the edge of Halifax Park, with three housemates and a constantly changing cast of temporary residents - friends, boyfriends, people crashing on the sofa or the carpets. It smelt the way student houses were supposed to, of Golden Virginia, sandalwood joss-sticks, damp, garlic and spilled soy sauce. There was a sort of communal room with a television in one corner and a long refectory table along one wall, so that you could only sit one side of it, with your back to the television, which was always on, though usually with the sound turned down. There was at least one person eating there at any time of the day or night, which made the atmosphere in the room like an endlessly extended dinner party. Most of the rest of the room was taken up with a sofa covered in what looked like navy-blue corduroy; the cover was fastened with the longest zip I had ever seen, the kind Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have designed if he'd gone in for zips. It ran the length of the sofa at the point where the seat and the back met, then along and round both arms, and got lost somewhere behind. It was a two-way zip, the two metal tags meeting in the middle, and no one could sit in that area without feeling the urge to play with them. It was not really a temptation, Imogen said, more a responsibility, because the sofa needed to eat like anyone else. What this meant was that it absorbed cushions. It was certainly the most uncomfortable piece of furniture I had ever sat on, even lower than the chairs in the English Department Common Room, and getting lower and more emaciated all the time. When it got too much to bear, someone would throw a cushion from the floor to whoever was sitting in the middle of the sofa, and that person would open the zip and stuff a cushion inside. The sofa never looked any plumper for this feeding, or the floor any barer of cushions, though it was possible, of course, that Imogen or one of the other housemates took all the cushions out of its interior occasionally, and put them back on the floor. Under its scattering of cushions, the lounge floor was polished boards with three oriental rugs, very faded and worn so thin that mats seemed a more appropriate word. It was dangerous to step on them, especially if you were carrying a mug of coffee or a bowl of rice. There was a bead curtain rather than a door between this room and the kitchen; Imogen came through it with a bowl in each hand.
'This is great,' I said, trying to put warmth into my voice. I wasn't sure what to make of Imogen's invitation. She had told me she had a boyfriend, and besides it had never occurred to me to fancy her. She was small and slim with short boyish-looking hair and pale blue far-apart eyes. The wide mouth was her most interesting feature - it always gave her a sardonic look. I found myself looking at her now and readjusting my mind to see if it might have room for at least a few fantasies.
'It's bulgur wheat,' Imogen said. 'I thought you needed something sustaining.' Seeing me looking suspiciously at the rubble in the bowl, she laughed. 'It's not that bad, Daniel. What sort of stuff do you eat normally? Apart from hot dogs?'
'Corned beef hash.'
'I don't know what that is. What is that? It involves meat, obviously.'
'It's corned beef, and onions, and potatoes, fried. and a panful of it lasts me two days. Hot with brown sauce, cold with coleslaw.'
'I remember brown sauce,' someone called up from the sofa. 'You mean HP sauce, or Daddy's? That brings back so many happy memories.' He was a boyfriend of one of the housemates, I thought. I had a vague impression of a thin young man with frizzy hair and glasses somewhere behind me.
'It's not the HP sauce that's your main problem,' Imogen said. 'That's not going to make you so much worse than you are already. It would be bad for me, but as far as you're concerned we have to make allowances. I don't like the fried aspect.'
'That's the recipe. It has to be fried.'
'Throw away your frying pan, Daniel. A frying pan is bad news from the spiritual point of view. There's nothing you can fry that wouldn't be better boiled, or better still steamed.'
'I don't think you can steam corned beef hash.'
'Too right you can't steam it,' the boyfriend said from the sofa,
'But it's the corned beef that's the real killer,' Imogen continued. 'I mean, it's not just beef, is it? Beef would be bad enough. Oh no, Daniel, it has to be corned.'
It sounds as though Imogen was lecturing me, but she really wasn't. She spoke in a bantering way, always with a smile, which made me feel that she actually liked me for my reprehensible diet. When she noticed the trouble I was having making my way through the bulgur wheat (which was just that, a bowl of hot, slightly soiled-looking grains, without even salt on them) she started plying me with extras - soy sauce, a glass of the wine I'd brought, a slice of bread cut from a bricklike loaf she'd baked, and described approvingly as 'really cakey', even some butter. She didn't have any of these things herself. 'I'm having a macrobiotic week,' she said.
When I asked her to explain, she got up from the table and went over to the far wall where there was an improvised bookshelf against the skirting board made of bricks and planks. 'Here,' she said, read this.'
I read while she came and went, explaining bits from time to time between several conversations she was having with other people. More people came in and sat at the table to eat. There was a housemate called Monica with rich dark hair and brown eyes behind brown-rimmed glasses, who spoke very fast in a squeaky voice that gave me a strange feeling inside. My mind started readjusting again. 'What the party needs,' the boyfriend was saying from the sofa (Monica's boyfriend? Imogen's?) 'is more intellectuals.'
'Oh we don't!' Monica said. 'We've got far too many intellectuals already. We've got a million intellectuals, and only one worker.'